Runaway rivals slowed only by labor

Toronto — From high-profile studio tentpoles like “Robocop” to NBCU’s “Defiance” and BBC America’s “Orphan Black,” Toronto’s film and TV biz has become one of the key benficiaries of Hollywood’s runaway production. 2012 is on track to at least match last year’s record C$1.26 billion ($1.25 billion) of combined foreign and domestic production spending in Ontario, according to figures from the Ontario Media Development Corp. and the Toronto Film Office.

Of the $967 million spent in Toronto last year, more than half came from major U.S. productions.

There’s no question Ontario’s 25% tax credit, which can be used alongside other government credits, sparked the boom. It’s even drawing business away from fellow Canadian province Vancouver, which will see one of its tax breaks end soon. However, other factors are also fueling Toronto’s momentum and growth since the advent of the 2009 credit — including new studio space, global interest in domestic TV series, advocacy from industry-funded consortium Film Ontario, ramped-up training, and expanding post and vfx facilities.

The most visible signs of the boom are the shovels in the ground at studios, as well as the action within them.

Pinewood Toronto Studios broke ground in early October on a $40 million expansion, including three 10,800 square-foot stages geared toward indie pics and TV, while its main eight-stage facility has brought tentpole biz to town, with “Robocop” now lensing on its Mega Stage, hot on the heels of “Pacific Rim” and “Total Recall.”

“We’ve overcome that dependence on the exchange (rate), and while it may not be as cheap as it was (with the Loonie now worth a bit more than the dollar), there are no surprises,” says Pinewood Toronto CEO Paul Bronfman, who’s also CEO and chairman of the Comweb Group and William F. White Intl., Canada’s top equipment house. “Pinewood has brought an incremental business into Toronto that wouldn’t otherwise have been here, and right now, Toronto is on the list for every big movie.”

• In 2010, Cinespace bought a 30-acre property in the South Etobicoke area in response to the local industry’s demand for TV production space. Series recently lensing at Kipling Avenue Studio include Netflix’s “Hemlock Grove” and the CW’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Sony and Constantin’s “The Mortal Instruments,” from Toronto producer Don Carmody, is shooting on the facility’s large sfx stage. Carmody’s “Resident Evil: Retribution” was the stage’s first customer.

• The stages, shops and offices of the former Toronto Film Studios, shuttered in December 2008, are back in business, according to studio president Ken Ferguson. The space is housing production overflow and undergoing upgrades to accommodate digital media.

“There’s a global village of tax credits and locations out there,” says Toronto producer J. Miles Dale (2013 releases “Carrie” and “Mama”), who knows of four or five studio projects considering Toronto for the first quarter.

Both the Screen Gems-MGM reboot of “Carrie,” and Universal’s “Mama,” did location work in Toronto and shot at Pinewood Toronto.

Dale adds that while studios have become wary of places where incentives grew, then withered, leaving no infrastructure behind, Canada has built a solid production sector. “Our stability means studios don’t have to worry about money drying up, or having to bring in 50 more crew,” he says.

NBCUniversal, producing shows in Toronto since 2001, is well acquainted with what the city has to offer. For its CG-heavy action series “Defiance,” a town was built on the backlot of a warehouse space in Toronto. NBCU series “Alphas,” “Warehouse 13,” “Covert Affairs” and “Suits” also shot at various Toronto studios.

“When we started in Toronto, it was more of a movie town, but when that dried up a little, the town realized successful episodic TV is where the bread and butter is, and that’s what we’ve proven there,” says Mark Binke, senior veep of cable and digital production for NBCU arm Universal Cable Prods.

Binke says Hollywood showrunners were initially concerned about the quality of a Toronto shoot. “Now we’ve built a crew base to support our five series, and we’re always mining the local talent,” he says. “It’s important to have as many local crew (members) as possible — that’s how we get the most bang for our buck.”

Increasingly, foreign film and TV productions are doing post work in Toronto. For Dennis Berardi, founder and prexy of Toronto’s feature animation and vfx studio Mr. X (“Tron: Legacy”), which just scored a contract for effects sequences on “Robocop,” the tax credits are the driver in helping him compete globally.

“Previously there wasn’t an incentive to keep that work here,” Berardi adds, noting that strong local post talent is complementing monetary incentives and keeping business from moving to London or the U.S.

The backbone of the Toronto biz remains series TV, the increased investment from Canadian broadcasters and a growing roster of local writers and showrunners with U.S. experience.

“Now we’re seeing competition among distributors for Canadian product,” says Ivan Schneeberg, co-prexy with David Fortier of Temple Street Prods. Shingle is ramping up to lens futuristic 10-parter “Orphan Black” for BBC America and is finishing post on youth-targeted “Next Step,” about an elite dance squad, for Canada’s Astral Family Channel.

Says Ken Pruner of Canada’s actors union, ACTRA, “The expression of interest from U.S. and foreign clients reminds us we got to this place because we invested in our domestic business.”